He’s dropped the Smog moniker and seems more chipper than ever, but Bill Callahan still makes the most beguiling music anywhere, says Miles Fielder
By way of a typically cryptic explanation, the enigmatic American singer-songwriter Bill Callahan once said – in response to what can only have been a helluva lot of queries about his willfully opaque moniker Smog – ‘I live in smog.’
He may have done so for the past 15 years and 12 albums, but Callahan doesn’t live in smog no more. With his 13th album he has ditched the Smog moniker in favour of releasing the new long player under his own name. Callahan reckons the logic for this was simple.
‘A newish start. A cleanish slate. I changed the name before writing anything for the album. That was the foundation of it, that it was all built on. I just grew wearisome from the Smog name. Also, I’m hoping some people that hate Smog will buy a Bill Callahan record without realising who I am. The looks on their faces when they put the record on at home and it dawns on them. Priceless, Miles, absolutely priceless.’
The new record, Woke On a Whaleheart, enjoys as esoteric a title as any Smog album ever had, but while his fondness for hitting the studio is unsurpassed, he still claims to prefer a live outing.
‘I like the physicality of playing live. So much of the writing part is just sitting down. Playing live is like striding through the songs or running or tumbling through them as if they are landscapes, hills, oceans.’
One thing that’s immediately apparent on Woke On a Whaleheart is that it is, frankly, happier than Callahan’s other work. The lo-fi sound of his previous recordings has been replaced with a brighter, more polished sound. Similarly, the melancholia that pervaded the earlier records has given way to what might almost be termed feelgood swagger.
That’s not to say the record represents a completely new direction, however. Callahan’s baritone vocals, his deadpan lyrical delivery, the cynical humour that underlines his songs, their often confounding but beautiful oblique poetry, and the musical fusion of pop, blues, folk and gospel, as well as more experimental electronic sonic surges, has not vanished. But the introverted and painfully intimate songs recounting childhood memories, dysfunctional relationships, disturbing fetishes and abandoned hopes that have characterised Callahan’s output this far, and prompted music critics to label him a depressive and depressing, are no longer apparently the mainstay of the artist’s concerns.
For now Callahan is concerned with the upcoming live shows. He’s even recruited a new live band for these outings and is enthusiastic about his new role as ringmaster, bandleader and party host.
‘We had our first practice today. The men were awfully cute and dear. I went to the grocery store after it was over to buy some chocolate and Belgian beer to bring to the next practice. If the stuff lasts through the night. You see, I’m so very thirsty.’
You can hear the wry smile slowly dawn on Callahan’s lips at this point. He’s less the morose troubadour these days, more the daddy. Perhaps he really does no longer feel like he lives in smog. Either way its good news for us.
Arches, Glasgow, Tue 14 Aug.